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Restoring a "grass-roots" forest.

An innovative project to reinvigorate the disappearing longleaf/wiregrass piney woods has the potential to do much more.

My Yankee husband was horrified. I wanted to burn our newly purchased north-Florida piney woods to encourage the longleaf pine to germinate, but his early experience in Pennsylvania's hardwood forests had taught him that fire is the enemy.

We compromised. For a couple of years we'd burn just a few acres; then we'd make a decision about the rest of the tract.

Our first fire was nearly a disaster. The six-foot-wide fire I lit devoured the long-unburned litter. A squirrely wind pushed the flames across an inadequate fireline and onto the next-door neighbor's property.

We tried unsuccessfully to chase the fire down with hand tools. My husband finally cut it off by mowing the vegetation ahead of it with a push mower. The fire ran out of fuel just as the mower ran out of gas.

The results over the next few weeks were almost as dramatic as the fire itself. Small hardwoods stood bare and dead. Dozens of wildflowers bloomed white, lavender, and yellow. Grass-stage longleaf pines, previously hidden by a tangle of weeds, shot skyward. And the wiregrass--the wiregrass sent up a sea of spiky tan bloom stalks.

This tale contains all the essential elements of a southern pine forest: pines, wiregrass, and fire. They're what biologists these days call keystones, the elements that play pivotal roles in an ecosystem.

Dr. Reed Noss, a consulting ecologist in Corvallis, Oregon, describes keystones as components of an ecosystem that control the diversity of species in a community at large. "Some plants, such as wiregrass," he told me, "are very important in encouraging frequent, low-intensity ground fires. These in turn allow many other species to exist in the ground cover of the longleaf pine ecosystem."

Think of it as a stack of children's blocks, with the three on the bottom being wiregrass, longleaf pine, and fire. Take away any of the three, and the entire stack collapses.

Before Europeans settled the Southeast, more than 61 million acres of longleaf pine covered the coastal-plain sandhills from eastern Virginia to east Texas. Every summer, lightning-set fires would spread over thousands of acres. Fueled by wiregrass and shed pine needles, these blazes killed small hardwoods and other shrubby species so the pines and the wiregrass--and other fire-tolerant species--could reproduce.

An entire complex of fire-associated animals and plants developed in the sandhills. Rattlesnakes, pine snakes, gopher frogs, Florida mice, and other species took refuge from the summer heat and winter cold deep underground in gopher-tortoise burrows. Longleaf pines, reached the century mark and beyond, served as nesting trees for the redcockaded woodpecker. Rare plants such as the Florida yew and the Torreya tree lived on the slopes of ravines that cut through the sandhills.

All these species were supported by those same three key elements: the pines, the wiregrass, and the fire.

But longleaf pines have a high timber value, and beginning about 1880, loggers cut extensive tracts of forest. Early cut-and-run techniques did little damage to the understory and left scattered trees still standing; cut-over areas regrew fairly readily. But site-preparation methods used in the 1940s and 1950s--and to some extent still today--uprooted the disturbance-sensitive wiregrass, which did not come back.

Today most of this landscape is gone. Some biologists estimate that as little as 2 percent of the original acreage remains. And as the ecosystem supporting them has declined, so too have its inhabitants. Many species associated with the longleaf pine/wiregrass sandhills are classed as either threatened or endangered, and a few are teetering on the brink of extinction.

Scientists from the Nature Conservancy, a national environmental group, are trying to bring a small parcel of southern sandhills back to its former glory. Working on 6,300 acres along the Apalachicola River in north Florida--aptly named the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve--land steward Greg Seamon hopes to show that wiregrass can be restored to degraded sites, and along with it, a functioning longleaf pine/sandhill ecosystem. If his effort succeeds, he also will have developed techniques that western land managers can use in similar ecosystems.

The key is the timing of controlled burns. Most southern land managers set fires in winter or early spring to repress the hardwoods and other shrubby species that grow under planted pines. Fires at this time are relatively easy to manage. When burned at this time of year, wiregrass often blooms, as my husband and I have seen.

But wiregrass requires a growing-season fire--late spring to midsummer--to set seed. And not until the Conservancy began working at the Apalachicola Preserve had anyone tried to find out if seed produced after a summer fire would germinate and grow.

Dr. Ron Myers, director of fire-management research for the Conservancy's Tallahassee office, set out to determine if wiregrass could be grown from seed. "We started testing the seed from a variety of places around the state and found that it does produce viable seed," he said. "Viability varies greatly from site to site and probably from year to year within the site. We can get some sites, some years, which will have very low viability, like 2 percent of the seed. At other sites we've had up to 30 percent or more viability. And when you have millions of seeds produced on a site, that's a lot of viable seed."

All this is exciting news to me. On our farm--which has by now grown to more than 100 acres--we've long since settled the question of whether or not to burn. We ignite up to three-quarters of the woods every spring, and every summer the wiregrass sends up its spiky shoots. But I've never seen the first seed, and I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong.

Once Myers and Seamon had proven that the seed would germinate, they looked at different ways of planting it. They direct-seeded into small research plots in the field, and established a wiregrass nursery.

"After keeping those seedlings for six to nine months, we outplanted them, and that appears to be successful also," said Myers. "We found nobody ever really looked for or was able to identify wiregrass seedlings in the wild. We have done that successfully for the first time this year. Armed with this information, we're fairly confident that we can gradually reintroduce wiregrass to the scarified uplands we have on our preserve. What we've learned may not be the best techniques, but we've learned enough so other people interested in small-scale restoration projects can utilize the techniques we've developed."

But this project goes beyond simply replanting wiregrass under longleaf pines. "There's a lot more than just wiregrass involved here," Myers said. "We're trying to restore the entire ecosystem out there. The combination of the pine and the wiregrass will recreate the fuel we need for the fires that maintain the system.

"We're monitoring gopher-tortoise and fox-squirrel populations to see how they respond to the restoration," he added. "We're reintroducing one rare species and doing some experimental studies with some other rare species that may be influenced by fire. Some of these are very rare, and are listed as endangered species, particularly the Florida torreya."

Myers and Seamon won't live long enough to find out if they were successful in completely restoring the longleaf pine/wiregrass/sandhill ecosystem. One indicator of success, for instance, will be whether red-cockaded woodpeckers return to the systems, and the trees won't be old enough for that for quite a few years.

"We're looking at longleaf pine that have to be anywhere from 70 to 110 years old," Seamon said, "and the oldest longleaf pines we've planted are six years old. It could be 100 to 200 years before there's any proof that what we're doing really pans out."

Collecting and planting wiregrass seed by hand is a major undertaking, even on a small tract. For larger acreages, it's impossible. Seamon hopes to find ways to speed the process. "We're now looking at how we can collect seed quickly, in large quantities," he said. "At this point, we've been doing it all with volunteers, by hand. That's good for getting people involved, and it shows that we can do it, but over the long term, it's not real feasible to try and get volunteers out to collect wiregrass seed if you're going to restore 3,000 acres of disturbed area. Maybe we can get an idea how we can get that seed in quicker and over a broader scale than having to get down with rakes and scratch."

Scientists outside The Nature Conservancy are cautiously optimistic that Seamon and Myers are onto something big. "If they can find a way to regenerate wiregrass faster than we've been able to do it in the past," Reed Noss said, "then we can get a natural ground cover back into some of these stands that we've pretty much given up on--ones that have been site-prepared or are old-field succession--where the whole area has been plowed and put into crops and you've lost virtually all the wiregrass."

Western land managers also can learn from the techniques Seamon has developed. "A lot of the same principles apply to the Ponderosa pine/bunchgrass ecosystems that originally were very abundant in the West but have also undergone a great decline like longleaf pine has," Noss said. "The bunchgrasses were lost through heavy grazing, which eliminated the fuel for frequent low-intensity fires, the same kind of thing as we see in the Southeast."

Silvicultural practices change only slowly. But today's foresters are better than their predecessors at recognizing sites where longleaf once grew. The number of acres replanted in longleaf--instead of slash--pine increases every year. And foresters are beginning to recognize the value of a healthy, functioning wiregrass understory.

For today, the Nature Conservancy's research is affecting only a few acres. But if Seamon can develop methods to harvest and plant large areas of wiregrass, biologists at nature centers, state and national parks, and other public and private environmental facilities will be able to return functioning sandhill communities to appropriate sites. Agencies involved in reclaiming mined lands, such as phosphate regions in Florida, will have a tool to restore original habitat on damaged areas.

For me, Seamon's research has a more personal significance. Two years ago, we cut 70 acres of second- and third-growth mixed-pine timber off our farm, site-prepared the area to reduce the competition from hardwoods, and replanted the sandhill area in high-quality longleaf pine seedlings. On the parts of the site prepared with herbicides, the wiregrass forms a hillocky carpet between the little trees. But on the section prepared mechanically, only a few ragged clumps of wiregrass remain. By adapting some of Seamon's techniques to fit our needs, I now stand a good chance of restoring the wiregrass understory on the entire farm. And though I won't be around to see it, I can hope that my son--or more likely his son--may hear the first tentative rap-rap-rap of a red-cockaded woodpecker carving out its nesting cavity in an old-growth longleaf pine.

Carolee Boyles-Sprenkel writes about natural-resource topics from her home in Quincy, Florida.
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Title Annotation:Ecosystem Management
Author:Boyles-Sprenkel, Carolee
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:1859
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